5. June 2024

Adventure, cheese and generosity

The story of Kavli Trust is one of Norwegian ambition and innovation. It’s about the world’s first spreadable cheese, and a deep desire to give back.

This article is published in Kavli Trust’s annual report 2023.
Photo on top: Kavli Norway 

Download the full report here

Read more:

Press release: Spreadable cheese and paté contributed NOK 50.2 million to good causes

Editorial: Stronger together for good causes!

Next time you savour a slice of bread with Kavli spread cheese, close your eyes. Picture Fannestranda in Molde, nestled against the Romsdal Alps, with fertile fields and a fish-filled fjord – that’s where the Kavli adventure began.

In 1872, eight months before King Haakon VII, Ole Knudsen Kavli is born, fourth in a family of six. Their Fannestranda farm is small, and survival means hard work. Cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, fishing and logging keep food on the table. Young Olav (as he later calls himself) learns the virtues of saving and hard work. By age seven, he’s saving with a clear goal: to travel abroad and start his own business.

Good timing

At 18, he has saved NOK 60 – about a month’s salary. This launches a true Norwegian industrial adventure.

Days after his 18th birthday, Olav leaves for Bergen. His dream is within reach! He plans to attend business school at night, work during the day, and gain experience before launching his venture.

Obstacles lie ahead. He works multiple jobs, sometimes living in abject poverty. At one point, with dwindling funds and poor health, he nearly gives up. Yet, he perseveres, overcoming each hardship. Finally, in 1893, three years after arriving in Bergen, Western Norway’s capital, he registers the company O. Kavli.

Whey cheese

His new business sells cheese, butter and meat products, with whey cheese from Trøndelag as its initial star.

Olav has found his niche. Bergen is booming, dairy is industrialised, and luxury goods like cheese and butter are in demand. Rising societal prosperity sets the stage for success.

Success and setbacks

Success comes, but not without setbacks. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back. In 1924, O. Kavli goes bankrupt due to liquidity issues and bad investments. Yet, just a month later, O. Kavli AS is born, and the business continues.

This resilience defines him. Two world wars, global economic collapse, even the Cold War can’t stop Olav Kavli from building his food empire, country by country, product by product.

Industrial pioneer

”The Kavli story is fascinating,” says Professor of Economy at the Norwegian School of Economics, Ola Honningdal Grytten. In 2013, he co-authored ”Kavli – an industrial adventure” to mark the 120th anniversary of the Kavli Group.

“At Kavli, we have something as unNorwegian as a multinational company built on cheese, not fish!” notes Grytten. ”Olav Kavli was a pioneer in product development, Norwegian exports, and establishing industry abroad. A true adventurer, he travelled with his suitcase full of cheese, realising early on the importance of marketing and publicity. Each country he left his cheese case in counted as a new export market, making it easy to claim Kavli exports to dozens of countries.”

Winning the cheese race

Around the 1920s, a fierce race rages in the international cheese industry to create a soft, tasty, and above all, long-lasting cheese. It’s a demanding challenge, but promises massive success.

Olav Kavli thrives on innovation and competition. He loves being first with new products and works tirelessly to win the cheese race.

In 1923, Olav and his team successfully produce a spread cheese that ticks all the boxes: delicious, not too salty, and with a long shelf-life. That September, he hosts an exclusive gathering for the secret launch of Primula, its crescentshaped box proudly featuring a healthy milkmaid.

The new cheese is to everyone’s liking, mass production begins, and in 1924 (the same year he goes bankrupt and rebuilds the company) he registers the ’Primula’ trademark.

Launched internationally in 1925 as the world’s first shelf-stable spread cheese, Primula quickly captures a large market share at home and abroad, laying the foundation for the Kavli Group’s future success.

ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLE: Karin Kavli (1906-1990) and Knut Kavli (1896-1965).
Karin Kavli was a famous Swedish actress.

Factories abroad

Olav Kavli isn’t done innovating – he also pioneers cheese in a tube. In 1929 Primula comes in a tube format, further extending its shelf life. The tube is made from aluminium, a tradition that continues for 100 years.

In the 1930s, export and import restrictions create hurdles for Norwegian products. Olav’s solution? Establish Kavli factories in Austria, Denmark, UK and Sweden. Eventually, the international arm of the company outgrows the Norwegian portion. Post-WWII, turnover multiplies almost five-fold in just a few years.

”Everything Olav did underlined his ambition. He was the visionary entre – preneur who travelled the world charming audiences with cheese. Over 5 years, he built a Norwegian multinational food company,” says Grytten. ”Part of his success was his ability to recruit exceptional staff, show them trust, and let them work independently.”

From pioneer to philanthropist

Olav’s son, Knut Kavli, naturally finds his place in the business. After education abroad, he joins his father’s company, becoming manager in 1924 at just 28. Knut leads the Swedish O. Kavli AB throughout much of the 1930s, playing a crucial role in growing Kavli’s export business. However, his legacy will be very different.

After a brain haemorrhage in 1953, Olav Kavli never returns to active work, withdrawing completely from daily management. He dies five years later in 1958, aged 86.

Knut Kavli becomes Kavli’s main shareholder and director. Like his father, he values his employees, believing their welfare is key to success.

Generous and committed

Knut Kavli has a big heart for culture and charitable causes. Known for being generous and socially engaged like his father, he quietly supports young people in education and professional life.

But Knut also battles some health issues. He ponders the business’s ideal future. He and his wife Karin have no children, and therefore no heirs to take over the Kavli Group the day Knut passes away. Without action, his father’s legacy could fragment into many hands. He wants the ownership to remain concentrated with one or a few owners, so that it will grow and develop further, but at the same time continue to be based in Bergen.

A foundation is formed

After considering a number of solutions, Knut finally makes a decision.

“Christmas 1961 may have been decisive for Knut’s decision. He reflected a lot on the Christmas message and his father’s upbringing in a strong Christian environment, where doing good for others was highly valued. For Knut, it became important to do something good with the inheritance. At the same time, he wanted to secure the future of the Kavli Group,” says Ola H. Grytten. In a letter to director Olav Jacob Dreyer in May 1962, Knut writes:

”As I am getting older, I would like to secure the future of our company in a way that after my death it will not be at risk of falling into the hands of, or coming under the influence of, outsiders. By outsiders, I mean people who do not hold senior positions in the company. After much deliberation, I have therefore decided to establish a charitable foundation…”

On April 25, 1962, the O. Kavli and Knut Kavli Charitable Trust, today called Kavli Trust, is established by Knut Kavli. Knut makes the foundation the owner of the entire Kavli Group.

The Articles of Association make it clear that the purpose is ”to promote humanitarian work, scientific research and culture”. This is to be done by distributing profits from the company. Kavli Trust cannot transfer its shares to outsiders. As long as Kavli exists, Kavli Trust will be the owner of the entire company, and the foundation will distribute the entire surplus to good causes.

Art and culture

Artist Rolf Aamot and concert pianist Jan Henrik Kayser are the first to receive support from Kavli Trust. They each receive NOK 5,000, which is equivalent to NOK 56,000 today. The grants are made in February 1965, after Knut Kavli and his people have spent a couple of years building up capital and figuring out the new operating model.

Knut Kavli only had time to experience these first grants. In the autumn of 1965, he became seriously ill and died.

In the following decades, both the Kavli companies and the foundation make a number of changes, both in the operation of the companies and the allocation strategy.

However, the foundation’s public purpose, established by Knut Kavli in its statutes, remains steadfast. Profits are returned to society to generate positive change. This reflects the values Knut inherited from his father, who instilled a commitment to a life of impact, not simply wealth.

In his book ”Cheese in My Suitcase,” Olav Kavli writes:

”A small remark from my father stirred deep thoughts within me – thoughts that were always present but might have taken longer to surface amidst the daily grind. As he and mother were leaving after their visit, he expressed his joy at seeing my success, hinting at an even brighter future. But then he added, ’Remember, son, money isn’t everything. There are deeper values that truly matter.’”

NOK 1.3 billion for good causes

Today, Kavli Trust reflects on over 60 years of charitable causes.

”Olav and Knut Kavli were innovative, hardworking and highly skilled businessmen. Their commitment to social responsibility was truly ahead of its time. Thanks to them, Kavli Trust stands as a rare example in Norway – a group owner able to distribute its entire profit to good causes,” says General Manager of Kavli Trust, Ingrid Paasche.

She eagerly anticipates the 2024 celebration of the spreadable cheese’s 100th anniversary. For over 60 years, this cheese has been Kavli’s most significant contributor to charitable profits.

”Olav Kavli travelled the world, suitcase filled with his new cheese sensation. A century later, his life’s work has bettered the lives of people in those very same countries. It’s a beautiful story worth sharing and celebrating,” she says.

Since its inception in 1962, Kavli Trust has proudly distributed NOK 1.3 billion* to good causes.

*amount converted to today’s value

How the Kavli Group operates

  • In the first years after its establishment, the Kavli companies were managed by a three member board led by Knut Kavli.
  • In accordance with the statutes, the board must allocate funds for good purposes, manage capital and ensure that the company has a profit and a return on the shares.
  • Over the years, there have been some adjustments to the business model.
  • Since 1994, a holding company, of which Kavli Trust is the sole owner, has been in charge of the Kavli Group management.
  • The purpose of the foundation, to support humanitarian (charitable) work, research and culture, has remained unchanged, as Knut Kavli laid down in the statutes.